News you might have missed this busy summer
We get busy during the summer months, and sometimes don't see things we would have liked to, or we see them but put them aside for later when we have more time. So this is sort of an in-case-you-missed-it edition of the blog, where we dig through the to-do pile and the overflowing inbox and find some keepers.
The estimated damage of fracking
It's no secret that hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as fracking — is bad for the environment. The process, which involves injecting water and chemicals under high pressure into gas-bearing rock deep underground to break the rock and release the gas, has contaminated water supplies, dumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and caused earthquakes.
But what is less known is the extent of the damage. Now, thanks to a report by Environment America Research & Policy Center, the incredible scope of fracking in the United States can be seen.
Since 2005, more than 137,000 fracking wells have been drilled or permitted in more than 20 states, the report says, using at least 5 billion pounds of caustic hydrochloric acid. In 2014 alone, these wells created at least 14 billion gallons of toxic wastewater.
Fracking has used at least 239 billion gallons of water since 2005. Think about that number the next time you see the desperate need for fresh water in so many places of the world, or even when you think about farmers in the United States.
"In one water auction in Colorado in 2012, oil and gas companies paid up to $3,300 for an acre-foot of water, as much as 100 times what farmers typically pay," the report says.
Drilling also has directly damaged at least 679,000 acres across the country, nearly the size of Yosemite National Park, the report says, and released at least 5 billion pounds of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
And, the report's authors say, those are conservative estimates: For some of the states with the most fracking wells, such as North Dakota and Texas, wastewater figures are not available, meaning the numbers likely are higher than what researchers collected. And in Pennsylvania, the report says, regulators confirmed 260 instances of private well contamination from fracking, a number researchers said is likely a severe underestimate.
The racism behind the death penalty
Also no secret: How the death penalty in the United States is meted out is often racist and unfair. But like with fracking, just how racist and unfair is often difficult to grasp.
A study by University of North Carolina professor Frank Baumgartner and documentation specialist Tim Lyman, however, examines every death penalty case in the state of Louisiana since the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal again in 1976.
To say the results of their study are shocking is an understatement. You may want to have an airsickness bag handy.
Let's start with this: "No white person has been executed in Louisiana for a crime against a black victim since 1752." And no, that is not a typo. It has been 264 years.
How can that happen? Like this: "No matter the race of the offender, killers of whites are more than six times more likely to receive a death penalty than killers of blacks, and 14 times more likely to be executed," the study says.
In cases with a black male offender and a white female victim, a death sentence is 30 times more likely to be imposed than when both the offender and victim are black men. (The death penalty was imposed in about one out of six cases for the former and only one out of 200 cases for the latter. Apparently, when it comes to the Louisiana justice system, it is white female lives that matter.)
Proponents of the death penalty argue that the appeals system provides a safety net for these kinds of biases and point to reversals as proof that the system works. But consider this: Of the 155 resolved death-sentence cases since 1976, 28 resulted in executions, while 127 death sentences have been reversed.
"These reversals are usually the result of major errors at trial that violate the defendant's constitutional rights, such as prosecutorial misconduct, improper jury instructions and incompetent lawyering," The New York Times wrote in an editorial on the report. "In most cases, the discovery of these errors resulted in the defendants' being removed from death row and receiving lesser sentences. In nine of the cases, though, the defendant was fully exonerated of the crime and cleared of all charges."
These numbers are especially astounding when you consider that until the 1990s, courts were unlikely to reverse death sentences, and outright exonerations were extremely rare because cases were almost never reopened. Since 2000, the study shows, the numbers are even worse: Of the 52 resolved cases, only two resulted in executions, while 50 — 96 percent — were reversed. Seven of those reversals were outright exonerations.
That's not proof the system works. That's proof the system is broken beyond repair.
Documentary tells the story of forced sterilizations
In 1975, 10 immigrant Mexican women sued doctors in Los Angeles County, the state of California and the U.S. government, alleging they had been either sterilized against their will or coerced into giving permission for the procedure.
All of the women alleged they had emergency cesarean sections; they were either given consent forms in English that they could not read and not told they would also be sterilized or told that if they did not agree, both her and her baby might die. Sometimes, women were told they would not be able to get welfare benefits if they did not agree.
The Los Angeles Times reports, "Throughout the 1900s, thousands of poor women in at least 30 states were unknowingly sterilized after giving birth as part of a federally funded program aimed at population control." Most didn't know what had been done until years later.
Earlier this year, their story was told in the documentary "No Más Bebés" ("No More Babies) on public television. The class-action case was a failure, as the judge ruled the doctors didn't intend to do anything wrong and that trying to control overpopulation wasn't objectionable.
However, several reforms did come about because of the case, including consent forms in multiple languages and changes to the welfare system to ensure benefits would not be cut off. And California, where about a third of the sterilizations took place, required that hospitals have bilingual counselors on site.
The film, unfortunately, can no longer be streamed online for free, but may be available at libraries.
Remember, links, tips and accounts of the response to any crisis anywhere in the world are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.